Confident Saddam takes to the road

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The Independent Online
HE IS back in business and looking confident. On Saturday, Saddam Hussein, the Iraq leader who for seven years almost never appeared in public, visited two villages in the centre of the country. Muffled in a heavy coat, he regaled them with tales of his escape as a 21-year-old after he had tried to assassinate General Abdul-Karim Qassem, a former Iraqi president, in 1959.

"It was like you see in the films, but worse," he told the people of Albu Dor, a village on the Tigris through which he had fled at the time. "My clothes were wet, my leg was injured and I hadn't eaten properly for four days." He added: "How can I describe it? It is hard now to describe how I got out of the water."

The reappearance of Saddam Hussein in public - a month ago he visited villages in Mosul in northern Iraq - is important. It shows he is feeling more confident about his personal safety. He is also convinced that Iraq is escaping from its political and economic isolation. "With God's will your lives will be prosperous and the embargo will end," he said.

A further implication is that the Iraqi leader is not planning a further confrontation with UN inspectors looking for his weapons of mass destruction. At the end of the crisis, which almost led to war with the US and Britain in February, many diplomats assumed he would seek another confrontation in a few months.

As Saddam Hussein was conducting his tour - during which he fired a rifle into the air as villagers chanted his name - UN inspectors were for the first time visiting his palace compound in Tikrit, the city from which he and his close family come, in their search for chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. "Everything went smoothly," said Antonio Montero, the Portuguese Ambassador to the UN, who is also chairman of the UN sanctions committee on Iraq.

The inspectors from the UN Special Committee on Iraq, previously known for their aggressiveness, are now accompanied by 20 diplomats as they visit the eight presidential sites. Their presence is part of the deal agreed on 23 February by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, when he visited Baghdad and met Saddam Hussein. Mr Montero said there were many buildings under construction at the Tikrit palace compound. On Sunday the inspectors saw another of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Mosul.

Although Kofi Annan said the diplomats would not reduce the authority of Richard Butler, the head of the UN special committee, the palace inspections appear to be very much under diplomatic control. This will also please the Iraqi government which has accused Mr Butler of confrontational tactics.

The inspectors have now been seen four out of eight palaces. Jayantha Dhanapala, the UN Under Secretary for Disarmament, in charge of the accompanying diplomats, yesterday said: "Fifty per cent of our job is done and we are well on the way to implementing the memorandum of understanding as far as the initial rounds of visits is concerned."

Saddam Hussein's attempt as a student to assassinate General Qassem, during which he was shot in the leg, has often been retold in Iraqi propaganda films. It was the first step in his career in the ruling Ba'ath Party, which overthrew and killed General Qassem in a military coup four years later.